John Guare’s career as a playwright has had three stages. His early plays were examples of Theater of the Absurd with an American accent. Later his plays became more realistic, sometimes based on a true story or historic characters. In his new play Nantucket Sleigh Ride now at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse, he has returned to his absurdist roots with a wild comedy, configured in the form of a memory play by a former playwright which returns him to the summer of 1975. With a cast led by Broadway stars John Larroquette, Will Swenson and Douglas Sills, the play initially has a fascinating premise but goes off the deep end in its second half. Don’t blame the actors who work very hard to try to keep the play on the rails.
Nantucket Sleigh Ride makes use of a good deal of autobiographical elements: John Guare did live on Nantucket during 1962, was involved with the Nantucket Stage Company in 1973, and met his wife on Nantucket Island in an accidental encounter in August of 1975. Unlike the author, his hero Edmund Gowery is a playwright famous for a single play and has given up writing to become a stockbroker. The title refers to a 19th century whaling expression: after sailors harpooned a whale they are often taken on a wild ride for miles which often ended in the death of the sailors or the whale.
Edmund Gowery, the author of a single play, Internal Structure of Stars, now a Manhattan stockbroker, is confronted in his office by two young people, Poe and Lilac, who demand he fill in their memories of the summer of 1975, 35 years earlier, when they were nine and seven, respectively. Gowery recalls being called to Nantucket Island by the police to deal with a mail order child pornography ring working out of a house he bought the previous fall as an investment, the former home of the children’s author Clarence Spooner, famous for the Elsie and Wally series.
When he arrives on the island, he is confronted with a great many angry people, actors in the Nantucket Stage Company production of his play which he had refused to attend or to allow it to move to Boston. These include Officer Aubrey Coffin and a Vietnam veteran McPhee, as well as Schuyler who directed the play with his wife, the former Elsie Spooner, who appears to have gone missing. Elsie, the daughter of the famous author, suffers a nervous breakdown after her phone call to Gowery in which he refused to attend one of the four performances on Nantucket. Several people want their revenge on Gowery and the charge of the mail order pornography ring was a hoax to get him to come up to the island.
In the course of the play, Elsie may or may not have been murdered, she may or may not have rejected Disney Studios’ offer to buy the film rights to her father’s books and Gowery ends up the caretaker of Schuyler and Elsie’s children, Poe and Lilac, who continue the hoax to keep him on the island while McPhee who thinks Elsie will run off with him goes to Boston to find her. Throughout Gowery is in touch with his NY lawyer Gilbert whose wife Antonia claims to be in love with Gowery and leaving her husband for him. When Gowery is offered a job to write a film script for Roman Polanski and McPhee arrives with a live lobster, things get really crazy.
As things become more and more anarchic, Guare seems to lose control of the material and events seem to happen without reason; the play includes everything except the expected whale. While the South American writer Jorge Luis Borges puts in appearances throughout to make piffy statements that are non-sequiturs, the dead Walt Disney appears in the second act to negotiate for the rights to film Spooner’s books. There is much satire of community theater, Gowery sounds like a mispronunciation of the author’s name, and Guare is himself most famous for Six Degrees of Separation, parodied by Gowery’s Internal Structure of Stars.
Under the direction of longtime Guare associate and four-time Tony Award winner, Jerry Zaks, the cast are colorful in their bizarre roles but uneven. As the narrator and protagonist, Larroquette is curiously bland but his timing is fine in this absurdist-style comedy. Both Will Swenson as McPhee and Douglas Sills as Dr. Harbinger (Gowery’s psychiatrist), Schuyler (Elsie’s husband and community theater director), and the late Walt Disney don’t have much stage time or much to do. Germán Jaramillo may have the most thankless role – or the most fun – as Borges spouting various aphorisms for which he may or may not be well-known.
As the young people who precipitate the action, Adam Chanler-Berat as Poe and Grace Rex as Lilac act as though they are catatonic or at least traumatized and are pretty much the same in the two time frames 35 years apart. All of the other women play two roles each: Tina Benko is rather arch as two of Gowery’s girlfriends, Antonia, wife of his lawyer, and Alice, a magazine editor friend; Stacey Sargeant is amusing as both Gowery’s New York secretary who turns out to have appeared in a home production of his play and Officer Aubrey Coffin of the Nantucket Police in on the hoax to get him to the island; Clea Alsip as the missing Elsie seen in flashbacks shows up in various historic guises suggesting either theatrical range or a talent for reinvention, and ultimately appears as a woman Gowery meets as he is leaving.
David Gallo’s sets for both interiors and exteriors are attractive and are beautifully lit by Howell Binkley. Costume designer Emily Rebholz has been called upon to create a huge wardrobe considering the cast play 15 characters, several in two time frames, the present and 1975. These include business casual, summer sports clothes, elegant formal wear, as well as uniforms. John Guare’s Nantucket Sleigh Ride may actually have a great many autobiographical in-jokes but the references will probably be opaque to most theatergoers.
Nantucket Sleigh Ride (through May 5, 2019)
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time two hours including one intermission